The 1982 Los Angeles Lakers got off to a rocky start. They were coming off a disappointing season in 1981 and an early first-round playoff exit, and before we got out of December in this season, tensions between Magic Johnson and head coach Paul Westhead had reached the point that Westhead was fired. Considered a spoiled coach-killer at the start of the year, Magic had a chance for redemption in the 1982 NBA Finals.
Pat Riley was elevated from assistant to head coach and begin one of the great careers in NBA history. It didn’t hurt that, in addition to Magic and his 19 points/10 rebounds/10 assists per game average, Riley also had Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the low post. Kareem was 34-years-old, but still good for a 24/9 average.
Jamaal Wilkes scored 21 a night at the small forward spot, Norm Nixon was a scorer and distributor opposite Magic in the backcourt, Michael Cooper could defend anyone on the perimeter and Mitch Kupchak hit the boards with abandon. The Lakers won 57 games in the regular season and then went 8-0 to sweep through a weakened Western Conference (prior to 1984 the top two seeds in each conference got first-round byes).
The Philadelphia 76ers had gotten a big character win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Boston Garden, but they still needed to complete the journey to a title. Philly had lost to Portland in the 1977 NBA Finals and then to these Lakers—basically the same cast, save for Riley at head coach—two years earlier.
Julius Erving was the leader of the Sixers, with 24 points/7 rebounds per game. Andrew Toney was a lights-out perimeter shooter averaging 17 ppg. To show how different basketball was in 1982, Toney averaged less than one three-point shot per game. In today’s trey-heavy offenses, Toney would have had a field day.
Dr. J and Toney were the cornerstones and got help from veteran playmaker Maurice Cheeks, defensive specialist Bobby Jones and the talented, albeit inconsistent power forward Darryl Dawkins. Lionel Hollins, currently the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, was a contributor off the bench with 11 ppg.
Philadelphia had gone 58-24 and held homecourt advantage, but Los Angeles immediately took it away. The Lakers trailed Game 1 by eleven at the half, but used a balanced offense to churn out a 124-117 win. Nixon and Wilkes each knocked down 24, Jabbar had 23 and the 6’8” Johnson used his size advantage, and the lack of a solid 76er center, to make hay on the boards. Magic had 14 rebounds in the Game 1 win.
The suddenly desperate Sixers rebounded like a team possessed in Game 2, getting a 52-39 advantage, Erving came up with 14 boards and veteran backup center Caldwell Jones had 11, and Philadelphia won 110-94 to keep the Finals from getting away too quickly.
Now it was time to go west, and the Lakers came firing out of the gate in both games, and they were aggressive on the glass. Los Angeles won the first quarter of Game 3 by a 32-20 count and Nixon had a big game, hitting 12/20 from the floor for 29 points. Toney’s 36 couldn’t rescue Philadelphia in a 129-108 final. Game 4 was closer, but this time the first quarter went 29-18 for the Lakers and Magic, Kareem and Wilkes all scored 20-plus. A 111-101 win put Los Angeles on the brink of a title.
Prior to 1984, the Finals were 2-2-1-1-1 like the rest of the playoffs, so the 76ers could return home for the must-win Game 5. Even though the 3-1 series deficit was imposing they only needed to find a way to win road game and defend their home floor. They took care of the latter part with a dominant second half in Game 5. A game that was tied 54-54 at half, turned into a 135-102 rout, with the bulk of that margin built in the fourth quarter. Toney scored 31 points.
Erving had been consistent throughout the Finals, going over 20 points each night and he and Toney played with desperation back in Los Angeles for Game 6. They combined for 59 points. But Los Angeles had too much depth. Wilkes, the Lakers leading scorer in the Finals, scored 27. Magic had a Lucky 13 night—13 on points, rebounds and assists and Los Angeles dominated the glass to the tune of 49-35. The Lakers won 114-104 and secured the championship.
Los Angeles had its second title in three years, both at Philadelphia’s expense. The Sixers would go back to the drawing board and look for the kind of interior presence that could help them take the final step. For now, Magic was back in the nation’s good graces. He was a deserved Finals MVP, averaging a 16/10/9 throughout the series.